France’s debate over childrens’ addiction to digital technology is gaining support – Euractiv

A debate over children’s addiction to digital technology, and what can be done about it, is gaining support in France, while at an EU level, there are rumblings for regulation on addictive design.

French delegated minister for youth Sarah El Haïry and French digital secretary of state Marina Ferrari launched a new initiative on Thursday (28 March) called ‘P@rents, let’s talk about digital’.

Announced in the newspaper Le Parisien by El Haïry, the initiative will set up free workshops countrywide for parents, discussing all topics related to the use of digital technologies by children.

The workshop initiative follows an earlier promise by French President Emmanuel Macron: “We will determine the proper screen use for our children, inside our families, at home as well as in class, because it concerns the future of our societies and our democracies,” he said in his second press conference after his election, on 16 January.

Macron on 10 January set up a new Screens Commission to deliver experts’ recommendations about rules that should be put in place. The ten members of the commission were expected to deliver their report by the end of March, but it has yet to be published.

The Screens Commission is presided by Amine Benyamina, a psychiatrist specialised in the study of addiction, and Servane Mouton, a neurologist specialising in learning psychopathology.

Protecting users and children against the harms of digital technology is gaining momentum at an EU level too.

In December 2023, the European Parliament adopted an initiative report which stressed “the significant impact of addictive design on all individuals, but especially on children and adolescents.”

Dutch Greens Member of the European Parliament, and rapporteur of the report Kim van Sparrentak, said at a Mozilla Mornings event in mid-March, that she will be looking at regulating addictive designs and online harms for EU citizens in the parliament’s next mandate (2024-2029).

Legislation for screen addiction

A bill had been tabled at the French National Assembly in January 2023 by representatives Caroline Janvier and Aurore Bergé (Renaissance, Renew), to prevent excessive screen exposure for children. Unfortunately, the bill did not have enough support and was unable to move to the adoption stage.

The proposed bill targeted screen addiction for children under six years old and looked to train health professionals on how to treat it. It also contained numerous prevention and education policies, including a digital information platform for parents.

Though the bill never took off, the digital information platform was launched by the digital minister on Thursday (28 March). Ferrari used the event as a platform to influence the debate.

She notably repeated on the French TV channel FranceInfo, the same day, that she did not support former minister for education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem’s suggestion, to ration the internet as a way to counter the harms of digital technology.

Vallaud-Belkacem suggested in an opinion piece in Le Figaro on 18 March, to allocate a limited number of gigabytes to daily use.

She wrote, “Scarcity leads to a certain wisdom.” Implying people would spend less time posting hate speech, watching less pornographic content, or creating fake news, when their access to the internet was limited.

“No ministerial campaign can prevent a teenager from having their existence ruined on the internet,” Vallaud-Belkacem added.

Hackers vs minors

Making matters more complicated are cybersecurity concerns.

Since 21 March, there have been almost daily reports of French educational institutions being hacked.

France’s Education Ministry said on 25 March that 130 of them were targeted by cyber attacks. Hackers sent threats of terrorist attacks to pupils via email, including a decapitation video.

As a preventive measure, the messaging feature for pupils was shut down as ordered by Education Minister Nicole Belloubet on 28 March, until the hack and vulnerability level would be terminated.

[Edited by Rajnish Singh]

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